J. D. Salinger published his first story in 1940 at the age of 21, but it was the 1951 publication of Catcher in the Rye that thrust him into the national spotlight. A lot happened in the world between 1940 and 1951. Salinger witnessed some of its more grisly aspects as a Second World War draftee who saw action on D-Day and was amongst the first soldiers to enter a liberated concentration camp.
But except for one short story, For Esmé, with Love and Squalor — which features a soldier in the grip of post-traumatic stress disorder — Salinger swivelled as far as humanly possible from the war-ravaged external world to explore what was for him (and, as it turned out, millions of readers) the far more compelling interior world of Jerome David Salinger.
The tranquil civilian settings of Salinger’s bourgeois youth — summer camps, tony private schools, fortress-like Upper West Side apartments — provided serene external backdrops for the internal torment he brought to brilliant life. It took a certain genius to coax such widespread sympathy from the reading public for what we might call the High Class Worries of characters modelled incestuously narrowly on himself and his culturally avant-garde Manhattan peers. But he was that genius, and his cloistered exhalations set universal nerves a-shiver.
Salinger appealed to both sociologues and spiritualists. He was an urban, middle-class, Jewish, alienated John O’Hara for some; for others, a mystic whose principal motif was “the human exchange of beatific signals,” a kind of Central Park Dostoevsky.
Certainly, the slim Salinger oeuvre marks a turning point in American literary and social culture. Before Holden Caulfield arrived on the scene, maturity was something young people looked forward to with impatience and eagerness as a state in which one could set about doing things. After Catcher in the Rye, the title a reference to Holden’s evocative image of himself saving children from falling off a cliff into the abyss of sexualized adulthood, maturity began to be perceived by adolescents as a place you become “phony” (the worst sin for Salinger), a kind of death of the soul’s authenticity (which itself is presented as a yearned-for state of being that is possible only in pre-sexualized children).
Post-Holden, prolonged immaturity became an ideal, rather than a symptom of failure. But the non-sexuality part of the vision got lost in the sexual revolution. The 1970s-era result, of which Salinger must have disapproved, was a fetishization of youth combined with extreme libertinism, a rather lethal sociological combination whose negative consequences litter our cultural landscape today.
For older readers, the fictional Glass family offered a fascinating foliation of Salinger’s deepening inner conflicts. Collectively, their stories mirror Salinger’s struggle to negotiate a workable internal co-tenancy between the tantalizing non-intellectual selflessness of Buddhism and the highly intellectual, seductively egocentric “religion” of psychoanalysis, the trendy obsession of his era’s cultural elites.
The seven Glass family children — Seymour, the family guru who commits suicide, Buddy, the writer and Salinger’s alter ego, BooBoo, the well-adjusted one (the only one happily married with children), Walter and Wake, the twins, one a priest, one killed in war, Zooey, the most handsome and dramatic, and Franny, the beauty and would-be saint — are the offspring of an Irish-Jewish marriage (like Salinger’s parents) in which gregarious Irish volubility and moralistic Jewish introspection are both ratcheted up to fever pitch.
The Glasses are pre-hippies: out of synch with the conforming majority, but not proud of that. They are happily American, very attached to their roots and concerned to fit into the mainstream of American life, albeit on their own exalted terms. They have no use for the passivity of Eastern religions, even though they strive to embody the uncorrupted love ethic they promote.
All the Glass children have their different issues, as we would call them today, but they are united in their epic quest to love without ego, and their collective, ongoing mourning over Seymour’s never-explained suicide. Zooey complains they are all “freaks” because Seymour educated them in the ways of true love and then deserted them.
In their own way, the Glasses were attempting to forge a new, postwar American Dream, not through ideology or social engineering, but through a marriage of high intelligence and high spiritual sensibility. Their litmus test for success is the achievement of harmony in human relationships, the only subject that really stirred Salinger’s creative juices, perhaps because it remained so elusive in his own life.
Several generations of readers evidently have shared the same longing — which is why Salinger lives on as a nostalgia figure, if not a prophet. Unless and until inner peace becomes the new American norm, his niche in the American canon is secure.
Barbara Kay is a columnist for Canada’s National Post. She writes and lives in Montreal.